Red Tide #20
10 Years Later: Watts Rebellion
by Daniel Lawrence and Michael Long [Daniel Letwin and Michael Letwin]
In the last few months, there have been “outbreaks of violence” in cities around the country. Detroit; Riverside, Ca.; Elyria, Ohio; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Hartford, Conn.; and Boston, Mass. have all had minor rebellions by sections of the black population, who have been attacked both by white racists and cops.
This was heaviest in Detroit, where a white bar owner murdered a black man. In response, thousands of people were involved in storming the bar and fighting the police.
This is nothing new. As a US Justice Department spokesman said, “We’ve been having disturbances every summer.”
The man’s right. Black uprisings in the cities are nothing new. The summer of 1975 marked the 10th anniversary of the first major rebellion of the 1960’s – the Watts Revolt.
Watts is the heart of the black ghetto of Los Angeles. Its rebellion was called by the government commission afterwards, “a meaningless outburst.” Los Angeles Police Chief [William H.] Parker described the people involved as a bunch of “monkeys.”
The Watts Rebellion of 1965 broke out as the climax of a number of smaller rebellions in the year before it, including New York City and Rochester, New York.
HOW WATTS BEGAN
The Watts Rebellion itself began on August 11, 1965, when the Los Angeles Police Department arrested a black man, Marquette Frye, for “drunken driving.” The scene drew the attention of people who were in the area.
As one Watts resident explained, “This officer had this man handcuffed in the car and the man was trying to fight. The officer took his club and kept jamming it into his stomach. When that happened, all the people standing around got mad. And I got mad.”
The air was soon filled with rocks, glass and other objects being thrown at them from all sides. As a result, 1,000 cops were immediately sent in.
What became clear was that this incident of police harassment was all that was needed for thousands of angry people to move. On top of the lousy schools, lack of jobs, non-existent health care, rip off capitalists’ stores and general poverty, the cops were always buzzing around people’s ears like mosquitos.
When the 1,000 police arrived, people retreated to their homes for the night and the next day. But 1½ days later, on August 13, 7,000 people came out in the streets and tore up some of the symbols of their day-to-day oppression. They took the stuff from stores they wanted that they would never have another chance to get. It was then that 10,000 National Guardsmen were put on alert.
The cops began to go berserk. One 20-year-old man returning from a fishing trip with his wife said, “We got out of the car and fifteen officers ran up to us. They jabbed us in the back with clubs and told us to get off the street. They pushed us down and jumped on us, laughing about it.”
NATIONAL GUARD ARRIVES
The revolt continued though, and on August 14, 2,000 Guardsmen were moved into Watts, while another 3,000 waited nearby. By that time, the death toll had risen to 7 people and one cop dead.
It was on this day that rebellions broke out in the black communities of Chicago.
The government was freaking out. They just weren’t going to tolerate thousands of angry black people carrying on slave revolts. The next day, August 15, 21,000 Guardsmen occupied Watts. The occupying army had arrived in full force. An 8 p.m. curfew was begun and 25 people, including a cop or two[,] had been killed.
Meanwhile, the government politicians were calling for even more police to go in to suppress the rebellion. Mayor [Samuel] Yorty, Police Chief Parker, Governor [Pat] Brown and President [Lyndon B.] Johnson all demanded that the rebellion be physically suppressed immediately by the police and army.
“GET OUT NIGGER”
The cops got more brutal than ever, and their naked racism showed through without shame. One resident declared, “My husband and I saw 10 cops beating one man. My husband told the officers, ‘You’ve got him handcuffed.’ One of the officers answered, ‘Get out of here nigger. Get out of here all you niggers.’ ”
Every various “liberal” black civil rights leaders called for the rebellion to be squashed in an effort to prove they weren’t really radicals. Roy Wilkins, NAACP leader[,] called for the cops to stop the rebellion, and so did Martin Luther King, Jr.
On August 16, 30 people were dead, most of them shot by police. Even Governor Brown was almost offed when he tried to go through Watts and was narrowly missed by a sniper’s bullet.
REVOLT FINALLY BROKEN
But by August 17, Brown claimed the rebellion was over. And it was. Faced with the power of tens of thousands of cops and Guardsmen, the black community was forced to retreat. It was at this point that [Rev.] Billy Graham declared, “Let’s love each other, let’s return to God.”
By August 20, the government had appointed a “commission” to investigate the rebellion and its causes. It was called the McCone Commission after its leader, [John C. McCone,] former head of the CIA.
But a black newspaper, the L.A. Sentinel, which hadn’t supported the rebellion[,] had a realistic view of the causes. “Exorbitant rents, inadequate housing, 75 [cents] an hour jobs . . . the unemployed and underemployed reached percentages of 65% and over. No hospitals, dental facilities, one park and few recreational facilities . . . trash littering the streets . . . substandard foods are permitted.”
COPS BEAT KIDS
People involved in the rebellion and those that supported them in the black community (most people did support it there) knew what was happening too. They described cops beating kids, nine- and ten-year-old kids with clubs.
It was clear that while the government and its civil rights leaders called the rebellion “criminal,” it was a planned and conscious revolt of an oppressed group. As one account put it, “They [the cops, etc.] say it wasn’t organized, but it was. Not in the regular sense, but the people met in the park, and talked about what they planned to do about it that night.”
It also became know that the cops had orders to “shoot to kill” anyone who they thought was “looting.” The cops and National Guard had a field day.
The Herald Tribune reported, “One national guardsman had fired a perfect shot. He hit a man in the middle of the forehead, and the shot ripped off the back of the man’s head. He was dead upstairs in the firehouse. ‘It was a wonderful shot,’ a detective said. ‘We killed two here so far, and wounded a lot of others.’ ”
Governor Brown (father of today’s Governor [Jerry] Brown) said, “California is a state in which there is no racial discrimination.” Among the “looters” [were] a four-year-old boy who was killed by the cops, and his badly wounded 3-year-old brother “accomplice.”
[Richard] Nixon called the cops “very understanding, efficient.” Back then[,] Gerald Ford called the rebels “the lawless element which flaunts the orderly process of government.”
The Watts rebellion, like the recent fights in a number of cities today[,] was started by racist cops who were the last straw to just too many people.
The government wanted to make sure that black people learned that rebellions would be met by brutal force. The Watts Rebellion of 1965 left 34 people dead, most of them black residents. 1,032 people were injured. 3,952 were arrested.
IT WASN’T A RIOT
The government also tried to explain away the rebellion as the work of mindless black folk who just couldn’t control themselves. They tried to paint it as a “senseless act.” That’s why they called it a riot.
The facts are that Watts had nothing to do with “mindlessness.” People knew who their enemies were[,] and it was those who they fought. Stores who had given credit to the community were not usually touched. No houses were intentionally burned, and even drugs were not stolen from drug stores. These facts were brought out by the McCone Commission itself.
But the McCone Commission also was still working for the government. They said that the rebellions were uncalled for, that the solution was to have more friendship between the cops and the people of Watts.
NOT A RACE WAR
The government also tried to say that the rebellion was a race riot. They said that it was just that black people didn’t like white people. There was some truth to this because it was usually white people who were the cops, businessmen and administrators that were responsible for the situation in Watts.
But the report failed to mention the fact that black cops involved in the crushing of the rebellion were hated even more than the white cops.
The Watts Rebellion was crushed by the government through the use of the army and the police. People died in the fighting. It was a war between the poor people of Watts and the rich who ripped them off every day. It was these people who finally called in their storm troopers to stop those same people.
“THOSE FIRES LIT SOMETHING”
But Watts left another understanding in people’s minds. As one Watts person put it, “We are never going back to letting everybody run over us anymore. We ain’t going to just stand and look while they beat us. Those fires lit something inside my soul.”
1965-1975: How Much Change?
It’s now ten years after the Watts Rebellion. What has changed? Did the ruling class make drastic improvements in the lives of the black community? Do police no longer harass people? Do people that need jobs have them?
THINGS ARE WORSE
We know the answers to these questions. Everyone knows that instead of things improving in peoples’ lives, they have gotten worse. For a while in the 1960s, the government pretended to be setting up huge “poverty programs.”
But when you get right down to it, poverty is as real as ever today. Things have gotten even worse. This is because of the depression that the world is in. In this depression, rich people are making sure that their profits aren’t disturbed[,] by making the working class pay. Black people are paying the most.
BLACKS PAY MOST
There are a number of ways in which this is true. Black unemployment is double that of the overall unemployment rate (20%). Among black youth, who are paying more than almost anyone else in this whole country, the unemployment rate nationally is 65%. In L.A., it’s 45% for black youth.
We have learned from bitter experience what this means to our lives. People have to survive[,] and crime and hustling is the alternative for most of us. But there are laws against that, and people go to jail [or] eventually get killed.
Gangs and gang warfare [are greater] than [they’ve] ever been. These gangs usually don’t take out their anger on the cops, but on other brothers and sisters. We all know people who have been shot and killed [in] gang fights, and hundreds of thousands of young people are joining gangs.
Police harassment and brutality is also on the sharp increase. “Accidental” cop shootings of young blacks happen in every city in this country. When people organize themselves against this, the police attack them. Again and again, the police budgets are raised[,] and TV and radio praise them.
THE RACIST THREAT
The most dangerous and frightening of the recent developments in racism has been the KKK and others like it[,] who have been organizing mainly against busing. This is where it becomes clear that [opposition to] busing is really a question of racism. The KKK in different cities has been trying to stop busing. They’re even beating and lynching black people “just like the good old days.”
A recent example of this was in Louisville, Ky.[,] where crosses have been publicly burned[,] with police standing by and watching. The government is aware and in support of the KKK and its actions.
In short, things are getting worse. Between the struggles to survive, life is hell for most of us. There are a few black people for whom it isn’t though. They include Mayor [Coleman] Young of Detroit, and Mayor [Thomas] Bradley of L.A.[,] who run their cities the same brutal ways that the white mayors have. Their elections were one of the results of the rebellions. They could say to the white government, “If you don’t back us, then there will be other black leaders who will lead people to revolt or revolution.”
This is where today’s black capitalists come from too. The government wanted to help out a few black businesses or businessmen[,] so that it would seem that black people now have control of the economy of the ghetto. The point is that for most black people this doesn’t matter. They still live in the same conditions as before.
The actions of the government and of white racists [are] not being met with resistance. That’s what it means when it says in the papers or on TV that black people have been “rioting.” It means that people have been trying to take their lives into their own hands and survive.
RIGHT ON TO THAT STRUGGLE!
How to Win
The Watts Rebellion and many more like it throughout the country raised hell. They scared the government and furthered black people’s consciousness. They helped to win some advancement for black people.
The main reason for this was that while the rebellions challenged the power of the big businesses and their government to mess with people, [they] didn’t have the understanding, or the organization[,] to actually do away with that oppression.
In order to defeat a monster like capitalism, with its armies, courts, jails and police, you have to be strong. You must have enough organization not only to raise hell, but to have a revolution.
That’s what the rebellions didn’t have. They also lacked the organized power that black workers had in the places where they worked. Black working people have more power than anyone else. They are at the heart of the economy and can make it or break it. That’s the power that must be used to end black peoples’ oppression forever.
HAD TOTAL SUPPORT
The rebellion did however have things in its favor that the government and white-oriented blacks refused to admit. One of them is that although the actual number of people fighting in the streets was not the whole population, the rebellion had the support of everyone in the black community.
There are numerous reports and testimonies to the fact that the older people of the community cheered on the younger ones in the battles. People being looked for by the cops were hidden by the community. The rebellion truly expressed the feelings and desires of the black community of L.A.
There were other things to be learned from the rebellion and those that followed in other cities. The role of established “civil rights” leaders was not what black people had expected. Instead of being in the forefront of what was a slave revolt, Martin Luther King Jr. and others like him called for suppression of the rebellion by police and national guards.
The failure of these civil rights leaders to lead the revolts led to formation of groups like the Black Panther Party[, which was] founded the next year in 1966. Malcolm X’s militant teachings became more popular. It was groups and people like this that took up where others left off, and who were willing to make a real fight.
It was not until the 1969 attack on the Black Panther Party headquarters in L.A. that things were half as heavy as they had been in 1965.
The rebellion also showed that a war could be carried on against the government. The cue was taken up by cities around the country, the heaviest being Detroit in 1967. [There,] the black community and sections of the white working class took up arms against the police.
The National Guard was called into Detroit also, and for weeks, fighting raged in the working class communities of Detroit. Detroit today remembers this well, and recent events there show that a rebellion of that kind could easily happen again.
The Watts Rebellion and all of the others were intensely heroic. Our job is to evaluate their lessons and to carry on the struggle to its victory.